Over the last weekend, Handel and Haydn appeared sans Society (of singers), much as it did at times in the 19th century. Since the late Christopher Hogwood developed the H+H Period Instrument Orchestra after his arrival as music director in 1986, the practice has become more common, and history continues to inform the organization’s approach to the presentation of its namesake composers. For its two concerts at Symphony Hall, conductor Harry Christophers and violin/leader Aisslinn Nosky pulled four works from Haydn’s middle drawer. Why these four was a good question. BSO lists a couple of performances of two of the pieces, and these are likely the first H+H performances of the four, although Teresa Neff’s very readable notes were not historically informative about past local performances.
Alone on the stage, appearing resplendent in a midnight-blue cutaway, and with her signature she-devil red mane in the style of Gwen Verdon’s Lola, Aisslinn Nosky welcomed the near-capacity house, shilled some CDs, and summoned the virtual spotlight that would follow her through the afternoon. More than just a creation of the marketing department, this woman can also play, lead, raise expectations, and then over-deliver.
When she wasn’t center stage welcoming us or playing a concerto, this kinetic wonder was prancing about as a firebrand concertmistress without a fire extinguisher. She often faced her standing troops to inspire and cajole as something of a shadow conductor. Yes, Christophers was there too. He traced gorgeous arcs, marked much or the forestage with his fancy footwork, avoided reflexive time-beating (except in some fast sections) and pulled some luscious taffy in two andantes.
Symphony No. 8, Le Soir (not preceded by Le Matin and Le Midi), danced with unrushed bucolic colors. Zauberflötist Christopher Krueger’s magical scales and arpeggios inspired scrumptious response from the strings. There was throughout the Allegro molto one of the most fully argued dialogues among sections that one would want to hear. The character this band can produce without resort to throbbing metal strings and overdeveloped winds compels local pride.
The Andante began with organlike dignity, revealing a landscape in which Guy Fishman’s cello and Nosky’s violin foregrounded in riffs that almost rose to a double concerto—they were clearly the mama and papa for this Haydn. And in the first half the audience responded with applause after every movement.
Christophers found much of Haydn’s sly wit in the minuet. Contrabass Robert Nairn (sometimes seconded by Andrew Schwartz’s bouncing bassoon) amusingly stroked memorable solo passages even in the lowest register. His giant bow, looking like a tree saw, produced a vocal line that reminded this Silly Symphony connoisseur of the plainspoken parson in Disney’s Music Land [here at 8:19].
Tempestuous Nosky and Fishman along with their sections produced perfectly aligned tremolos while the winds chortled along with stormy amusement in the concluding La Tempesta: Presto. Nicely galumphed by all.
Rediscovered 60 years ago (though it also apparently had been known in a 19th-century quintet version) and not favored by many performances since, the A Major Violin Concerto served as a better than okay vehicle for Nosky’s latest star turn. The work was played on this occasion by 12 of the orchestra’s strings, and had something of the flavor of the master’s pioneering essays for string quartet, though with fewer of their surprises. Nosky relentlessly danced, mugged, and nodded to her fellow players in assent. Soloist or leader or both, she was always in our eyes and ears. Her well-developed tone is smaller than her personality, however, and a few imperfections of pitch in the upper registers will need to cleaned up in the forthcoming patch session. But she certainly smote all with emphatic projection and diabolical cadenzas. If the Adagio was robed in dignity more than radiance, and if the accompaniments spoke somewhat dutifully, Nosky flung forth the Finale with a felicitously uncorseted fleetness and security.
Haydn at his most Mozartean appeared in the plot-laden Overture to Armide. Rather than this digestible though exuberantly played capsule of the entire opera, and especially following the virtuosity of the violin concerto, some of Armide’s wild and crazy arias may have excited us more. Christophers knows plenty about finding singers.
The master’s Symphony No. 84, even though not up to the inspiration of his London jobs, occupied the position of the most fully realized composition of the afternoon. After the short introductory Largo, delivered with well-modulated expression—by turns pathetic and grand—the succeeding Allegro unleashed the hounds and horns, perhaps anticipating Autumn from the Seasons. One could not have asked for more clarity of detail or committed engagement.
The Andante witnessed Christophers’s most illustrative magic. Watching his arms, wrists, and hands trace long lines and phrases and pull caramel from his troops proved once again that red blood (and maybe saltwater) flow in his veins, and not a drop of icewater. His stickless approach was never beaty. Here was an elegant Apollo bringing us a sunny Andante. It was a relief that the reverie remained unbroken by applause.
In his minuets, that Esterhazy dude could really swing—if indeed his players sounded this good then. From that movement one can leave with the image of Christophers as one of the world’s shapeliest directors of this rep. In the Finale: Allegro he resorted to more-reflexive timekeeping and sharp cutoffs, but the approach allowed the requisite bravura momentum to maintain transparency. A moment of sublime navel-gazing briefly emerged in Andrew Schwartz’s bassoon solo. Here master and disciples were grinning and raising eyebrows indeed. Composer, conductor, leader, and band concluded with a chase scene that equaled The French Connection.
Even as this program offered no repertory revelations, it served as another estimable outing from one of Boston’s altogether reliable presenters.